Platonist philosopher and historian, who lived between 45/47 and 120 CE in the area of Chaeronea and Delphi.

Life and work

Plutarch was born in Chaeronea in Boeotia between 45 and 47 CE, as we infer from his own testimony (On the E at Delphi 385B). According to this, Plutarch began to study in Athens (at the age of 20) with the Platonist philosopher Ammonius when Nero was in Greece in 66/67 CE. We know that Plutarch remained in Athens enough time to become Athenian citizen (Table Talks 628A). He also visited Rome (Demetrius 2) and Alexandria (Table Talks 678A), but he spent most of his life in Chaironea and the nearby Delphi, where Plutarch served as priest of Apollo (Table Talks 700E). Several of Plutarch’s works manifest his strong interest in religious activity in Delphi, such as On the E at Delpih, On Oracles at Delphi, On the Obolescence of Oracles. He must have died after 119 CE, the date at which the emperor Adrian appointed him procurator (Eusebius, Chronicle).

Plutarch’s literary output is enormous. The ancient Lamprias catalogue, allegedly compiled by Plutarch’s son, Lamprias, includes 227 works, most of them not extant today. These are divided into two classes, philosophical and historical/biographical. There are 50 of Plutarch’s Lives extant today, while from the rest we have 78 works extant (the authenticity of some is contested). The Lives of famous Greek and Roman personalities that are organized in pairs reflect Plutarch’s political interests. His philosophical works, known in modern times as Moralia because of a well known manuscript containing 11 of Plutarch’s ethical works (Parisinus Graecus 1672 of 14th c.), feature also polemical works against the Stoics and the Epicureans. Plutarch’s polemics is motivated on the one hand by his wish to defend Plato’s philosophy against Stoic and Epicurean criticisms, which in his view resulted from misguided interpretations of Plato’s philosophy.Plutarch’s polemics is also fueled by his belief that Stoicism and Epicureanism have nothing new or interesting to offer in philosophy but rather their doctrines draw largely on Plato, but this strategy leads them to contradictions insofar as they also depart from Plato. Despite their polemical character, these works of Plutarch are important sources for our reconstruction of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy.

Philosophical views

Plutarch is a Platonist philosopher with special conception of Plato’s philosophy. On the one hand he endorses the view of Antiochus and Eudorus (1st c. BCE) to the effect that Plato has doctrines that he presented in his dialogues and that the task of the Platonist is to spot and interpret these doctrines. On the other hand, however, Plutarch disagrees with Antiochus’ view according to which the skeptical interpretation of Plato by the so-called skeptical Academy of Arcesilaus and Carneades is misguided or that it reflects an early, Socratic, phase of Plato (Cicero 4.1-3). Plutarch maintains instead that Plato combines in his dialogues the aporetic/skeptical aspect with concrete doctrines (To Colotes 1121F-1122E, Platonic Questions 1). For that reason Plutarch advocates the unity of the academy (in his lost On Plato’s Academy being one), which for Antiochus was upset by the skeptical Academy, and he also argues for the difference between the Academics and the Pyrrhoneans (in his equally lost On the difference between the Pyrrhoneans and the Academics). Plutarch’s conviction that the aporetic element is a significant aspect of Plato’s philosophy motivates him to write dialogues, as Plato did. Imitating Plato further, Plutarch uses myths, metaphors, and analogies, while he never appears as a character in his dialogues, but he presents instead as characters members of his family, such as his father Autoboulos and his grandfather Lamprias.

Plutarch’s interest in Platonic philosophy is more holistic than that of Antiochus and Eudorus on the one hand and the skeptical Academics on the other. Plutarch is interested in all philosophical issues that are discussed in Plato’s work, but he takes a specific point of view, which is that of Plato’s Timaeus. This is because Plutarch takes the view that Plato in the Timaeus advances a theory about creation of the universe including human beings, and in his view this theory shows which are the causes of all things and how we should understand the relation between these causes, which are intelligible, and their effects in the sensible universe. Plutarch defends a literal interpretation of the Timaeus, according to which the world has come about in time from two main principles, the creator-god and the indefinite dyad. Plutarch’s interpretation can be traced also in myths occurring in his work, such as in On Isis and Osiris, in which Osiris corresponds to the creator-god and Isis to the receptacle, that is, matter. On this view God accounts for the order and the rationality of the world, while the dyad for disorder. God establishes order through a rational world soul, while the Dyad operates through a non-rational world soul. This is the one and the same world soul, which in the beginning is non rational but later, when God imparts reason to it, become rational. Plutarch maintains though that there remain residual non-rational elements in the world soul, which are responsible for badness in the world.

The postulation of a non-rational world soul is inspired by the 10th book of Laws, where we hear of the maleficent soul. Plutarch adopts this interpretation because it allows him to dissolve the apparent contradiction in Plato according to which the soul is said to be both uncreated and created. As creation Plutarch takes the participation of world soul into reason (especially in his work On the creation of soul in the Timaeus). Plutarch’s dualism applies also to human psychology and aspires to do justice to Plato’s assumed view according to which the human soul comprises a rational and a non-rational part, which fight for dominance. Plutarch divides man into body, soul and intellect, and he conceives soul as an entity mediating between body and intellect (On moral virtue 441D, On the face of the moon 943AB). The soul, Plutarch claims, becomes rational through participation or proximity to intellect and irrational through participation to body (On the delay of divine justice 566AD).

Plutarch exerted considerable influence on later Platonist philosophers, especially in his focus on the Timaeus and the metaphysics that the dialogue brings. He was also influential in his attempt to unify Plato’s work and take it into account in its entirety.

Author: George Karamanolis
  • Ferrari, F. Dio, idee e materia. La struttura del cosmo in Plutarco di Cheronea. Napoli, 1995.
  • Karamanolis, G. "Plutarch." Zalta, E.N ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plutarch/. 2009.
  • Russell, D. A. Plutarch. London, 1973.
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